The latter decades of the 18th century were the golden age of England’s canals and a network was created across the industrial heartland of the English Midlands. It finally reached the London area, at Paddington, in 1801. It would be another 19 years before a new canal was created to bring goods directly to the City of London, one of the last of the canal age.
During the 18th century Britain was undergoing what we call the ‘Industrial Revolution’. New inventions and techniques improved manufacturing and farming. The growing British Empire and new wealth within the country created an increasing demand for products. The country’s roads were still in a poor state but raw materials, goods and produce had to be somehow transported as efficiently and safely as possible to and from places of manufacture and ports and markets. The solution was found in water transport.
Rivers in England had been canalized since the 16th century to assist the navigation of barges. Artificial channels were dug in order that short-cuts could be created where a river looped, or to smooth any rapid change in a river’s decent. In these cases the channel was fed by water from the river and is called a ‘navigation’. A notable example is the River Lea from Hertfordshire to the Thames, where a navigation was created, with the country’s first mitred lock gates introduced in 1571.
In 1765 the Duke of Bridgewater opened the country’s first waterway that was entirely canalized and did not follow the route of a river, known as the Bridgewater Canal. Its purpose was to transport coal directly from the Duke’s mines at Worsley in Lancashire into Manchester. The engineer for the project was James Brindley and he then proposed further canals that would link up the new industrial centres of the Midlands to the ports around the coast at Liverpool, Hull, Bristol and London. He engineered a new cross-country canal that linked Hull with Liverpool, passing through industrial towns such as Stoke on Trent where pottery was being produced at Josiah Wedgewood’s factory, as well as linking up with the Bridgewater Canal. The Trent & Mersey Canal received Royal Ascent in 1766. Brindley’s Birmingham Canal followed between 1768 and 1772, connecting with the Staffordshire & Worcester Canal, which linked the Trent & Mersey Canal to the River Severn (and thereby Bristol) in 1772. After Brindley’s death the opening of the Coventry Canal and the Oxford Canal linked the Midlands to the River Thames in 1790. Brindley’s original idea, to be able to carry goods by barge from the industrial Midlands to any of the four major English ports, was thus realised.
All these waterways during Brindley’s lifetime were narrow canals, with locks and bridges built to fit barges of seven-feet wide and 72 feet in length. They also followed the contours of the land in order to reduce the number of locks (and the associated building cost), and they therefore wound in loops through the countryside. New canals dug after 1800 tended to be built to a wider gauge, permitting either two seven-feet wide barges to fit into locks together or for a double-width barge. New techniques in building aqueducts and tunnels also allowed the later canals to be made straighter, reducing journey times.
With the opening of the Oxford Canal it was possible to transport goods all the way from the Midlands and beyond by water to London via the Thames. The locks on the Oxford Canal were only capable of taking one narrow barge at a time, however, and the canal itself looped endlessly through the countryside, with very slow journey times. From Oxford, goods had to be transferred onto larger barges, or the narrow-boats continue down the Thames, which they were not especially built to manage.
At the end of the 18th century a new route – the Grand Junction Canal – was planned from Birmingham to the Thames at Brentford, with a branch from Hayes to Paddington. Not only did it cut 60 miles off the length of the journey to London, but it was also built with double-sized locks, and therefore twice as much cargo could be carried at one time. The Paddington arm of the Grand Junction terminated in a large canal basin at the New Road (the Marylebone Road) and opened with great celebration in 1801.
At that time the New Road marked the northern boundary of the western suburbs of London. As soon as the Grand Junction was opened a proposal was made by a Thomas Homer to cut a new canal from Paddington. It was to pass eastwards through the fields to the north of the New Road, then around the north and east of the City. A dock was to be built for the trans-shipment of goods where the canal met the Thames at Limehouse. The new venture would avoid the necessity to transfer goods onto wagons to transport them into the City and to the Thames docks.
No progress was made for a decade until in 1811 Homer heard of John Nash’s plans to develop Marylebone Park, later renamed Regent’s Park. Homer made a proposal to Nash for the latter to take charge of the construction of the canal, to pass through the park. Nash envisaged a scenic waterway passing through his development and feeding an ornamental lake, so readily agreed to the proposal. When the architect realized that cargo boats might spoil the tranquility of residents in their grand villas he changed his plan, with the canal instead passing along the northern boundary of the park, hidden in a deep cutting and never feeding the park’s lake. (The lake is actually fed by the River Tyburn, which passes through it). Nash and his assistant, James Morgan, were thereupon engaged by the Regent’s Canal Company to oversee its creation. At the same time they were employed as civil servants to ensure it was completed according to the wishes of Parliament and in the best interests of the park, a conflict of interest which would be unthinkable in modern times.
Another advantage for Nash created by the waterway was as a means to supply markets he had in mind to be built on Crown-owned land to the east of the new Regent’s Park. For that purpose a section of the canal was planned and dug, known as the Cumberland Arm. As the main line of the canal took a sharp turn from Regent’s Park north to Hampstead Road, the branch continued east, and then curved south-east down to the Cumberland and Clarence markets close to the New Road. (The branch and terminal basins were filled-in with bomb-damage rubble after the Second World War).